1858-60 fight: a history of the country’s defence in retrospect

March 24, 2019 - 09:00

The central city has been a key port for geopolitics and a crucial military post for Viet Nam since the first battle against French and Spanish forces in 1858-60. Hoài Nam reports.

The statue of Nguyễn Tri Phương (1800-73), a famous general who commanded an army and civilians in fighting against the French-Spanish force in 1858-1860. — VNS Photo Công Thành
Viet Nam News

by Hoài Nam

Đà Nẵng has been voted one of the best cities to live in throughout Việt Nam. People around the world arrive to walk along its beaches and enjoy the streets of the nearby ancient city of Hội An. But little did they know that the city, due to its strategic location, was an important trading route from north to south.

The central city has been a key port in terms of geopolitics and a crucial military post for Việt Nam since the first fight against French-Spanish coalition forces in 1858-60.

At a seminar to discuss the battle, vice chairman and general secretary of the Việt Nam Association of Historical Sciences Dương Trung Quốc said it had marked the first victory of the country over foreign invaders.

He also said the battle gave Đà Nẵng and Việt Nam an important role in the ‘game’ among powers (French, British Empire and later the US) in world history.

“The fight also proved the contribution and responsibility of the Nguyễn Dynasty (1802-1945) in the protection of the country. It highlighted the key role of Đà Nẵng as a strategic entrance to East Sea and Southeast Asia,” Quốc said.

“The 1858 battle is seen as the first head-to-head confrontation against westerners after the country had undergone struggles against Chinese dynasties.”

A cannon is seen at the Đà Nẵng Museum. The cannon was used in the fight against the French-Spanish force in 1858-60. — VNS Photo Công Thành

Researchers, historians and scientists discussed the fight and the role of Đà Nẵng in history, trade, investment and shipping routes as well as the current development of the city and central Việt Nam.

Trần Văn Kim from the National University said Đà Nẵng was seen as a key and safe port for both military and trade in the Asia-Pacific region during the 19th century.

“The first cannon fire and attacks by French-Spanish coalition forces, which occurred on September 1, 1858, set up the first step for the French colonial governance in Việt Nam for 100 years (1858-1954),” Kim said.

He said the French Navy had earlier sent ships to Đà Nẵng (1817-1840) in the fight for colonies in Asia, and the French bolstered the move to Việt Nam when the British Empire occupied Hong Kong following the Treaty of Nanjing signed in 1842.

Kim said the French-Spanish forces (2,500 soldiers including 850 Spanish) and 14 war ships, led by Admiral Rigault de Genouilly, had anchored in the Sơn Trà Peninsula before launching attacks on Đà Nẵng’s Điện Hải Citadel in 1858-60.

Professor Ngô Vĩnh Long from Maine University, the US said the 1858-60 fight resulted from series tensions in negotiations between France and the Nguyễn Dynasty, and outbreaks of these tensions occurred in 1857 when King Tự Đức decided to execute two Spanish priests.

An overal view of the Điện Hải Citadel in Đà Nẵng. — VNS Photo Nga Sơn

He said a ship from the US Navy (the Constitution), led by Captain John Percival, was sent to Đà Nẵng in 1845 to force the Nguyễn Dynasty to release a French priest named Dominique Lefebvre who had been sentenced to death. However, the ship left the port, firing its cannons after the negotiations failed.

According to historian Lưu Anh Rô, Admiral Rigault de Genouilly had sent an ultimatum to the Nguyễn Dynasty on September 1, 1858, demanding they gave up the An Hải and Điện Hải fortresses within two hours.

The cannon fire began around 9.45am – two hours after the ultimatum was sent and there was no reply from the Nguyễn Dynasty.

Rô, who is deputy general secretary of Đà Nẵng’s Historical Science Association, said some documents from France describe that 10 ships all fired on fortresses and defensive posts, and the Mitralle hit an arsenal of An Hải (on the east side of the Hàn River now).

The Annam troops reacted fiercely, but the bullets could not damage the French ships, Rô said.

French-Spanish forces (450 troops) then landed and took the ports of An Hải, Phòng Hải and Trấn Dương after a 30-minute bombardment, and thus the Sơn Trà Peninsula and An Hải were taken by French-Spanish forces.

The French then took the Điện Hải Citadel with their second attack on September 2, 1858. A document recorded 20 Vietnamese soldiers were killed and 12 wounded.

Rô said the Vietnamese troops, under the command of General Nguyễn Tri Phương, switched to guerrilla warfare and went underground, and subsequently took the lives of  60 French and Spanish soldiers, including a commander.

According to Rô, the strategy stopped the French moving faster and deeper into Đà Nẵng, limiting them to just two miles up the Hàn River.

Researcher Lê Tiến Công said three French ships were sunk by Vietnamese troops in early 1859.

He said French troops isolated on the Sơn Trà Peninsula were almost blocked from moving to the capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty in Huế 100km away.

Công said a royal document from the Nguyễn Dynasty showed that the French withdrew from Đà Nẵng in late March of 1860.

Researcher Lê Sơn Phương Ngọc said the 1858-60 attack was not only a threat to the Nguyễn Dynasty in Huế, but a crucial step to building Đà Nẵng into a key military post.

Writer Nguyên Ngọc explained that the French invaded Việt Nam from 1858-60 with an ambition of seizing a large source of silk.

Historical researcher Nguyễn Quang Trung Tiến from Huế University added that the 1858-60 battle was an example of the strong spirit of the Vietnamese people and army in an unbalanced battle against a powerful force.

1858-60 vestige revisited

The Điện Hải Citadel (now the Đà Nẵng Museum at 24 Trần Phú Street) is the only vestige left from the battle 160 years ago.

The citadel was first constructed as a military outpost in the 12th year of King Gia Long’s reign (1813) near the mouth of the Hàn River to control access to Đà Nẵng Port and serve as an important defensive position.

An old photo of war ships of the French-Spanish force in Đà Nẵng in 1858-60. — VNS Photo Công Thành
A graveyard of dozens tombs of French soldiers who died in the fight in Đà Nẵng 1858-60. — VNS Photo Công Thành
The Hàn River estuary is seen as a site that witnessed the 1858-60 fight between the French-Spanish force and Vietnamese army and citizens. — VNS Photo Công Thành

It was renamed the Điện Hải Citadel in 1835, the 15th year of King Minh Mạng’s reign, after it was moved inland and rebuilt.

The citadel still has a moat between two brick walls and a cannon collection displayed outdoors.

A collection of 11 iron cannons cast during the Nguyễn Dynasty between 1802 and 1860 was unearthed at the Điện Hải Citadel between 1979 and 2008.

The collection and citadel are closely linked to Nguyễn Tri Phương (1800-73), a famous general who commanded an army and civilians fighting against the French-Spanish forces.

Vice chairman of the National Heritage Council Đặng Văn Bài said the citadel, along with the Nghĩa Trủng Hòa Vang (the Hòa Vang Martyrs Cemetery) in Cẩm Lệ District and a graveyard of French-Spanish soldiers who died during the fighting near Tiên Sa Port, remained the last and clear evidence of the battle.

Historian Dương Trung Quốc said the preservation of the graveyard of the French-Spanish soldiers showed the humanity of the Vietnamese people, even to invaders or enemies.

He said the French graveyard near Tiên Sa Port, and a chapel at the foot of Sơn Trà Mountain, must be protected from property development.

According to the Đà Nẵng Museum, more than 4,300 Vietnamese civilians and soldiers were killed during the 1858-60 battle with the French-Spanish forces.  — VNS